Category Archives: Reading

Video Trailer for It’s a Book by Lane Smith

Here’s a one minute video that offers yet more insight on the digital transition. It’s the book trailer for It’s a Book by Lane Smith, though part of me wonders if (as is often the case with movies) this trailer might not be better than the thing it promotes.

Of course, it’s ironic that a video book trailer is being used to promote a book that pokes fun at all things digital, but that’s getting nitpicky. Perhaps the fact that this video exists means the doom and gloom days for ebooks will soon be behind us.

As someone who spent a good chunk of this weekend with my nose stuck in an old-fashioned paper book… I get it.


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Thoughts on The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief by Rick RiordanI read The Lightning Thief primarily to see what all the fuss is about. It’s the first in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, which seems to have taken over multiple shelves in book stores everywhere. Of course, the film adaption this year has helped matters, but there’s no denying that the books were already doing quite well without any Hollywood interference.

The story is straightforward enough. Percy Jackson has never done all that well in school, suffers from both ADHD and dyslexia, and is prone to freak accidents. This all starts to make sense when he discovers that he is a half-blood, with a god for an absentee father. The Greek gods are alive and well, and relocated to America in the not-too-distant past. Percy soon finds himself at a camp with other half-bloods, the first place where he has ever felt at home. Soon enough the action kicks in again and Percy sets off on his quest to battle a small chunk of the pantheon and ward off World War III.

The parallels to Harry Potter are unavoidable, but this book feels quite different. It has a breezy style so that the book is more easily inhaled than read. The pages turn quickly. The plot, while somewhat formulaic and at times predictable, never relents. Even the most reluctant reader will find this book an easy challenge to finish. This is a great book for boys, with far more focus on action than quiet moments. And yes, there is at least one explosion. The creatures and monsters that pop up throughout are done well, but not so well that they’re likely to induce nightmares. There are also enough comedic interludes and spots for brief reflection to please more thoughtful young readers, though the book never wavers from its intent to entertain first and foremost.

That said, The Lightning Thief is not all mayhem. It sneaks in a crash course in Greek mythology. The gods are all present and slightly reinvented for the contemporary kid. These parts of the book feel somewhat inspired by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, reimagined for kids. Each history is given in an engaging way that puts my high school Greek history class to shame. All around, the book has piqued my interest to seek out the second in the series. There are five books in all released to date. Another factor likely to please hesitant readers: the books stay pretty slim… unlike that other infamous series.


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Guys Read: Funny Business Book Trailer

One of the things I often hear at writer’s conferences for kid’s books is that boys don’t read. As someone who at one time was both a boy and a voracious reader, I’ve always felt that this has a lot more to do with how books are presented (and marketed) to most boys than with any gaping deficiency in boys themselves.

Then I found the Guys Read website. They group books into boy(ish) categories: at least one explosion, animals, dragons, robots, etc. How about we get all of them into one dang book? That would be awesome. It’s fantastic to see some of the books that first got me reading featured, like Where the Wild Things Are which I learned by heart before I could read and Childhood’s End which totally blew my mind in the 5th grade.

The organization is the brainchild of Jon Scieszka who I’ve been fortunate enough to hear speak at two writer’s conferences. He’s the author of The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and other books with a wickedly boyish slant. He also served as the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and, all around, is a spectacularly funny guy.

Guys Read releases its first anthology, titled Guys Read: Funny Business, this September. If the book trailer is any indication, it’s a must read for boys everywhere.

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Interactive Story is an Oxymoron

I’m reading The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. The book is based on the work of Joseph Campbell, an analysis of the basic elements of myth and story that stretch back for millennia. Fascinating stuff, if not entirely new.

Since I got the book, it’s been released again as a third edition. This bit caught my attention in the introduction to the 2nd edition, from 1998:

Shortly after the first edition of this book came out, a few people (threshold guardians) jumped up to say the technology of the Hero’s Journey is already obsolete, thanks to the advent of the computer and its possibilities of interactivity and nonlinear narrative. According to this batch of critics, the ancient ideas of the Journey are hopelessly mired in the conventions of beginning, middle, and end, of cause and effect, of one event after another. The new wave, they said, would dethrone the old linear storyteller, empowering people to tell their own stories in any sequence they chose, leaping from point to point, weaving stories more like spider webs than linear strings of events.

It’s true that exciting new possibilities are created by computers and the nonlinear thinking they encourage. However, there will always be pleasure in “Tell me a story.” People will always enjoy going into a story trance and allowing themselves to be led through a tale by a masterful story weaver.

I’m not sure if Vogler goes far enough. More than ten years later, the iPad is heralded as a miraculous device that will usher in a whole new type of storytelling. The idea that stories are destined to be reinvented as interactive experiences predates the looming ebook tsunami. Presumably, it was also predicted long before the hyperlink came along. But such thinking fails to understand what a story is at its core. If the basic structure of the story hasn’t changed in a few thousand years, it has nothing to fear from ebooks. New devices will create whole new types of games… but story, nope.

AmphitheaterIf stories were meant to be interactive, the stage would never have been invented. Actors would have just scattered through the crowd and everyone would have become part of the production. Instead, we got the amphitheater that separates the storytellers from the audience. Centuries later, movie theaters are dark for a reason that goes beyond helping us see the film. We want to get lost in the story. Is anything more annoying than someone yacking on their phone next to you at a movie? Nope, because it pulls you out of the story. And those choose your own adventure books that they had when I was a kid were fun, but a novelty. I remember that I had to pick what happened next, but I don’t remember any of the stories.

The power of a good story, in part, is that it does have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. There is cause and effect. Life hardly ever works that way. Stories do, and appeal to a need for such order that is almost primal. Once we have to choose what happens next, order evaporates and with it the story. It becomes a game at best, a chore at worst. Instead of laughing at someone else’s mistakes or commiserating with their plight, the reader of an interactive story shares responsibility for its outcome.

Experiencing a story only works when it’s a passive medium, and that’s okay. Interactive story is an oxymoron.

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Gary Shteyngart Book Trailer: It’s Not Do Authors Read, but Can They Read?

With the internet kerfluffle this week over whether or not Tin House has the right to require that submitters prove that they’ve actually bought a book, Gary Shteyngart unintentionally weighs in with a highly entertaining book trailer. It promotes his third novel, Super Sad True Love Story. The question shouldn’t be: do authors read? It should be: can they read? It’s hilarious. Shteyngart was one of the New Yorker 20 under 40. Here’s a peak at one who they’ve crowned a “voice of our generation.”

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Amanda McKittrick Ros: Can writing be so bad that it’s good?

We often hear how self publishing and ebooks will overwhelm defenseless readers with a sea of slush. Those who say this may not know of Amanda McKittrick Ros. She self published long before it was fashionable, well, technically her husband financed the publication of her first novel. Irene Iddesleigh was introduced to the world in 1897 as a tenth anniversary present. It has ever since been a source of inspiration for all the wrong reasons.

An Amanda Ros society sprung up in Oxford in 1907, where dinner party guests had much fun mocking the book. Mark Twain called it “one of the greatest unin­tentionally humorous novels of all time.” Aldous Huxley wrote an essay about the novel’s bizarre style in 1928. And shortly after World War II, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussed the novel in their literary group, the Inklings. The task was to see who could read aloud the longest without breaking into “helpless laughter.” Apparently beer was also involved.

Ros demonstrates a penchant for overwriting. As has often been quoted, in her prose, eyes become “globes of glare,” legs are referenced as “bony supports,” pants are a “southern necessary,” and sweat is rendered as “globules of liquid lava.” As her title shows, alliteration was one of her favorite devices. From Irene Iddesleigh:

The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthy future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible and the rebellious roar of the raging nothing.

Dialogue fares no better:

“Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!”

But what’s most interesting about Ros is not her writing itself, it’s the continued interest in her for more than a century. Ros was the subject of a 1964 biography, aptly titled O Rare Amanda! Her third novel, Helen Huddleston, which she left incomplete was published posthumously in 1969. In 1988, her work was collected in an Amanda Ros reader, Thine in Storm and Calm. In 2001 she was featured in Nick Page’s In Search of the World’s Worst Writers. She was the subject of a fresh “read aloud” contest at the Celebrate Literary Belfast festival in 2006. Demand for her books, which are all sadly out of print, is strong. Prices range from $200 to $500. It seems only a matter of time before some enlightened publisher introduces her in ebook form. How many writers of more talent have published celebrated tomes since, yet today are forgotten?

I reviewed Fannie Hurst in an earlier post. She was at one time the highest paid writer in America, but today is nearly out of print. Her writing is similarly amazing for all the wrong reasons. That post on Hurst is one of the most trafficked pages on this blog. People seem to love bad writing, or perhaps just bad art in all its forms. What else explains the attention paid to those unknowing contestants at the beginning of each season of American Idol?

And what happens when vanity and notoriety collide? Is it better to be forgotten or laughed at and remembered? If Ros were alive–she died in 1939–she could take solace in the fact that she has brought much joy to the literary world. She’s also frequently reported as saying: “I expect that I will be talked about at the end of 1,000 years.” Amanda McKittrick Ros may well be right.

Further reading on Ros: Amanda McKittrick Ros and the Inklings, Wikipedia: Amanda McKittrick Ros

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Thoughts on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is one of those books that seems to pop up everywhere. It’s at the front of all the major bookstores, is mentioned with envy at every writer’s conference, and was featured prominently in a recent New Yorker article on the rise of the dystopian kid lit novel. The Hunger Games had caught my attention, but it didn’t make it onto my list until I saw my 12-year-old niece reading it. She was even nice enough to buy me a copy of it last Christmas, though I’ve only just now snatched it from the shelf.

Once I dug in, it didn’t take long to understand why the book gets such rave reviews from all corners. This is not a book that’s read, so much as swallowed by the spoonful. The story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. It’s set in a future society in the North American Rockies, following some unspecified cataclysmic event. A rich capital city is surrounded by 12 provinces, all overrun with varying degrees of impoverishment. Each year, to keep the provinces in line, there is a lottery that selects two children from each province to become contenders in the namesake Hunger Games. It’s a critique of our reality-TV-drenched society, only in this world the games are a fight to death… between kids. Last one alive wins. Katniss, of course, ends up as a contender for her coal-mining province, the poorest of the poor.

Collins does a superb job of launching the plot from the first page, but offers much more than just relentless story. The reader quickly develops deep empathy for these characters. While Collins never does stop throwing rocks–sometimes quite literally–at her beloved Katniss, the book also has highly reflective moments for her. These come crashing to an end, long before they get boring, with some new disaster that Katniss must claw her way out from under.

One of the most striking things about this book is how it deals with death, which is featured rather prominently and sometimes almost gruesomely for a kid’s book. Collins hasn’t created a moving novel on mortality like Tuck Everlasting, or one that reflects on humanity’s weaknesses like The Lord of the Flies, but she does pluck at something more profound than just the heartstrings. I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike, just slightly older kids. It’s not a good candidate for bedtime reading for truly little ones. The sequel, Catching Fire, was released late last year, and we’ll probably all hear a great deal–perhaps too much–about the third book in the series, Mockingjay, when it’s released this August.

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